The tide was high by the time we got to Al Wakra. It was a Friday, my day off work, and I had promised my daughters to set out early but my yoga practice ran late that day and then with this and that and the friends we waited for who didn't come and then my own resistance as I really didn't know that beach and we really didn't think of it as our beach like we did the Ritz beach of the drums at night and the low-flying flamingos…
So, like I said, the tide was high and the day well advanced and we couldn't pull out onto the sand flats the way that we had planned to, so instead I parked the car in the overcrowded car park, avoiding the public beach near a port filled with dilapidated dhows and the crowds of women and seven-year-olds swimming in full shalla. Me, our two maltese dogs, and my two shockingly lovely girls walked towards a deserted spit.
The path took us down the retaining seawall and then past a few stray mangrove shrubs and expatriates from the Indian subcontinent sunning themselves on their only day off. I didn’t look at them as we passed though felt a moment of kinship in the lack of exchange – just other invisible workers displaced here in Qatar – never fully relaxed. We waded to the first sandbar, crossed it, than waded to the next one. The sandbars stretched out to sea, a patchwork of white and turquoise set off by expansive blue light, but we stayed where we were, within sight of the port behind us and across the channel from the SUVs that had found their way onto the beach. We settled in, finding a mangrove to shade our water and hang our sarongs on. Cadance, refusing sunscreen, hat and T-shirt, ran with ever-lengthening legs and bucket to the water but Ariana hung back beside me with her dogs.
‘Come on, darling. The dogs are OK. We could take them off their leashes now.’
‘No, Mum, they'll run. We'll never catch them if they do. What if they get lost?’
I quelled my irritation. Her heightened anxiety levels were my fault, her fear of losing her dogs related to all her other mother-imposed losses. I accepted this, but still I was about to argue with her, to encourage her, to try to help her with the idea of letting go, when I noticed workers on the sandbar beyond us, a group of maybe four or five. Out of respect for their cultural fear and dislike of dogs, I let her keep the dogs restrained.
‘OK, OK,’ I smiled and pulled her against my side. ‘Let's just relax.’ I held the dogs while she took off her T-shirt and adjusted her togs. Then I handed the dogs back to her and we walked together to where Cadance was trying to catch hermit crabs. We sat in water barely three inches deep, heat and light soaking into us, and I let go of breath after breath as I watched my daughters expand into the sunshine.
Cadance alternated between checking beneath every shell for life and herding hermit crabs back into their castle. Ariana, her breast buds just beginning to strain beneath her swimmers, rolled stomach down in the water and chatted reassuringly to her dogs. Wet sand oozed through her fingers.
I closed my eyes and tipped my face back into the white warmth and listened to the lapping of water against my thighs, to a car racing beyond a sand dune, muted but still present, to a scuttling through sand – a crab escaping Cadance – to the comforting sounds of my daughters' soft movements and voices. In the white light, like a soft half-darkness, it almost seemed possible to reclaim what I'd lost.
But then there was a shift, a change. The dogs started barking.
‘Mum,’ Ariana called.
The group of workers from the other sandbar had arrived on the edge of ours and were watching us intently. Another group was walking towards us from the beach.
‘Mum,’ Ariana said again.
‘Hush, darling, it’s fine. We can share the beach.’ Cadance had wandered a little too far and I gently called her back. An ibis was standing nearby, eyeing her bucket of crabs.
I walked to her and pulled her back as she chatted about her finds. I kept my movements slow and even as I noticed that the second group of workers had stopped on the path that led back to the beach.
Ariana was sitting up by then. ‘They are all staring at us, Mum.’
‘Don't worry about it, darling. But put on your T-shirt, OK?’
Another two workers were walking through the deeper channel, approaching faster than the others, and as I turned, shading my eyes, I saw yet another small group of three or four walking towards us from another sandbank.
I dressed, then squatted to pat the dogs and slowly surveyed the scene. I counted five different groups moving in towards us, a total of maybe twenty-five.
‘What do they want?’ Ariana asked. I didn't tell her, ‘You.’
‘It's their only day off,’ I said instead. ‘They are just at the beach to relax.’
‘Yeah, right,’ she said with a snort. I wondered just where her trust had gone.
The dogs were barking madly by then and pulling at their leashes. The men were crowding almost every edge of our sandbar.
‘Cadance, darling. It's time to go.’
‘But Mum, you promised. Look at this crab's claw.’
‘They’re all staring at us, freak.’
Cadance looked up from her bucket of crabs, around us at what had become an almost complete circle of men, and then back at me in confusion.
‘It's OK, darling. They are just lonely for their families, but it is really time to go, OK?’
As we finished packing and Cadance dressed, I whispered to the girls that we were just going to walk with our heads held high but with no eye contact. They nodded, their matching hazel eyes examining mine for reassurance. ‘Look at each other if you need to,’ I said, ‘but not at them. They won't like it.’
We walked straight along the path, saying nothing, but the dogs yapped madly and pulled at their leashes. The men stayed back from them. In silence they opened their ranks for us just moments before we reached them, then crowded the path as we continued to walk. We waded through the channel to the next sandbar where more men had gathered to watch our progress. Then finally we threaded through the mangroves, back up the retaining wall and into the car park where a group of women in abayas sat around a small fire pit at the back of their car. The women watched us as I fished around for my car keys. Looking back briefly, I noticed that on the sandbar we must have been seen by all, so when one of them spat in the sand beside us, I was not surprised. My movements were still slow and steady as I pushed the girls and dogs and bags of clothes into the car, but there was a tremor in my hand as I put the key into the ignition and pulled the car away.
Valerie Jeremijenko holds a PhD from Deakin University’s Creative Arts and Communications Department, an MFA from Arizona State University in Creative Writing, and a BA (Hons) from Queensland University in English, Drama and Religion. She is also the founder, owner and director of Yama Yoga Studios in Doha, Qatar and of Yama Yoga Retreat Center in Pcheliste, Bulgaria. Her book, How We Live our Yoga was published by Beacon Press in 2001; her short stories have appeared in Hinchas de Poesia, Grasslands Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review and Antipodes: A North American Journal of Australian Literature. Currently she serves as Assistant Dean for Student Affairs at VCUQatar.